This week, I am reporting on an African-American woman, Kalimah Johnson, a social worker and hair stylist from Detroit who is on a personal pilgrimage to Ghana.
After years of wondering where her ancestors came from, Johnson, 40, took a DNA test last November. The test result was that her maternal ancestry could be traced to the Akan people of Ghana. Last week, she and a few friends flew to Ghana, her first trip ever to Africa.
When I met her in Accra this week, she told me, "I wanted to see the land. I wanted to feel the air, small the grass. I wanted to just experience this land as my ancestor experienced it."
She traveled around Ghana and took a brief side trip to Senegal. In Ghana, she visited the notorious Elmina Castle, a one-time Portugese fort that was later used as a station where African slaves were held in brutal conditions waiting shipment to the Americas.
"I felt the ancestral spirits," she said. "I heard the drums. I smelled the blood. The sweat, the tears. History classes and discussions will never do it justice. You have to stand in it if you can and experience it."
The next day, I got a text message from her. She was in Kumasi, the capital of the Ashante region.
"I love Ghana," she wrote.
Her experience is similar to mine several years ago. For a story on the DNA tests that purport to be able to tell African-Americans where their distant African ancestors came from, I took a DNA test -- though there are critics who question the accuracy of such tests.
My resullt was that my maternal ancestry was Ashante. From that, I was inspired to take a trip in 2005 much like Kalimah Johnson's. Below is what I wrote then about my experience:
May 6, 2006 -- In a sense, my journey to Ghana began last fall, months before I actually traveled to the tiny West African nation. It began in my mind and heart when "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts disclosed the results of a DNA test tracing my maternal ancestry.
"Ashanti people in Ghana," Robin said. I was overwhelmed with emotion, only dimly aware that I was on live television. I felt exhilarated.
"I felt like a door that has been closed all my life has been open," I said, and as I said it I had that literal image in my mind: an enormous door creaking open slowly to reveal an ancestry that all my life had been unknown and, I thought, unknowable. I want to note here that the accuracy of this kind of DNA test, which can cost hundreds of dollars, has been challenged by some geneticists. They say that it is possible to generally locate where one's ancestors came from, but that databases are insufficiently large to give 100 percent pinpoint results of a specific tribe or people. Having reported on this subject, I was aware of the controversies behind the science. And yet none of that mattered to me at that moment. It was something, where before I'd had nothing.
The next day, I used my British Airways frequent flier miles to get a ticket from New York to London to Accra, the capital of Ghana.
Landing in Ghana's Capital
Months later -- on March 6 -- the BA flight descended in the darkness. Out the window, I could see a scattering of lights. With a touch of nervousness that I had not expected, I thought, "This is it."
On my first day in Accra, the sprawling, congested capital of 2 million, I was taken to lunch by the daughter of Harruna Atta, editor of the Accra Daily Mail. I had met his older daughter, a grad student at the Columbia University School of Journalism, by chance and she had urged me to look up her family.
We grabbed a cab. The driver was a man named Isaac, an Ashanti. I told him about my DNA test result. He'd never heard of such a thing.
"I took the test," I explained. "On my mother's side, it said Ashanti."
He glanced over at me. "Is that right?"
"Do I look like I could be Ashanti?"
He took a second look, smiling. "Well, because of your color."
I prompted him: "Many, many years ago?"
"Many, many years ago," he said thoughtfully, still concentrating on the road. "Mixed brown. I think it's OK. So far as you're about to discover, I think it's right."
"So Ashantis are very proud?"
"Yes, because Ashantis are very great people."
In the coming days I would hear variations of that boast, but it always seemed prideful, not arrogant.
I spent two days under the wing of Harruna Atta. he patiently explained the politics, social customs and culture of Ghana and Ghanaians. He took me to meet the tourism minister who told me -- to my shock -- that many Ghanaians are only dimly aware of the slave trade that thrived on their shores centuries ago. He said some might not even connect visiting black Americans to Africa. They would assume that there were indigenous dark-skinned people in America just as there are in Africa. I was told that when "Roots" was broadcast on national television, some people learned for the first time that black Americans originally came from Africa. Ghanaians were stunned and outraged, he said, by the depicted cruelty of the slave traders and slave masters.
Experiencing Ashanti History
I took a night bus to Kumasi, the major city in the Ashanti region. It is a bustling, modern city of about 1 million people. For hours, I walked around the packed streets. I found myself looking into people's faces looking for a resemblance to myself. Did I see it? Or did I imagine it? I wandered and wandered, imagining my distant relative here or somewhere near here. I wondered: What had happened to her that she ended up a slave, deported to the Americas? What had she thought when she was taken into bondage? Surely she was afraid. And as I peered into the faces, I thought: This person or maybe this person could be my relative.
I visited the palace of the Asantehene, the Ashanti king, whose royal lineage goes back centuries. Every sixth Sunday there is a ceremony at which the Ashantis' dead ancestors are honored in what I was told was a colorful ritual. If you are lucky, you may also have an audience with the king afterward. I wanted to meet him and tell him about why I had come there. I had been advised to bring a bottle of schnapps -- a tradition dating back to when Scandinavians occupied coastal Ghana and presented the liquor as a gift. I had brought none, risking the disfavor of the king, I was told. The ceremony was delayed, then delayed again. Then came word: The king would not perform the ceremony today because his sister-in-law had died the night before. It was a huge disappointment.
My trip ended at Cape Coast. I wanted to see St. George's Castle, the 15th-century Portuguese fortress just up the coast at Elmina. For more than 300 years, countless numbers of slaves were taken there, held there, beaten, the women often raped, men and women killed. It is the best preserved -- and therefore probably most haunting -- of dozens of such slave transit posts along the coast of Ghana. It survives as a fearful, disturbing monument to man's cruelty to other men.
A small group of us, led by a Ghanaian guide, passed through dark passages and narrow portals to the Room of No Return. This was the place from where the slaves -- maybe my relative -- departed to the slave ships waiting outside. In a corner, there were flowers and a wreath left recently. So many thoughts. So many emotions.
In the courtyard at the castle, there is a plaque affixed to a wall, not far from where, ironically, stood the Catholic Church where the slave traders worshipped. The plaque reads: "In everlasting memory of the anguish of our ancestors ... may those who died rest in peace ... may those who return find their roots."